It's not what Les says that counts...

January 30, 2004

... his hands may be more revealing. Psychologist Geoffrey Beattie discusses how Big Brother offers unique insights into the way non-verbal behaviour can betray hidden thoughts

The reality TV show Big Brother recently topped a THES poll to find the programme that most undermines British culture, with Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of the Medical Research Council, commenting: "What hope is there for the cultural advance of mankind when such tedious, odious celebration of non-entity and idiocy is so universally admired." Let me try to reassure him that there is still some hope.

One of the most popular Big Brother shows is the one broadcast on Sunday evenings, when three psychologists analyse the behaviour of contestants.

This analysis guides the viewer through what has happened in the previous week. Such analysis is not trivial. It is informed by and helping to shape contemporary psychological theory. Sceptical readers might like to read Visible Thought: The New Psychology of Body Language , in which I argue, following the pioneering work of David McNeill of the University of Chicago, that some fleeting non-verbal aspects of behaviour, captured perfectly on the programme, provide us with a glimpse of our hidden unarticulated thoughts in ways that we had not previously anticipated. Big Brother has provided unique data for this theory.

But how can it do that, you might ask, when all Big Brother provides us with are highly selected individuals performing in front of the cameras? To critics, the housemates are self-publicising extroverts who know that they are continually being watched, "acting" in front of a battery of cameras that pick up their every movement. Why should such footage be of any interest to psychologists? Because it shows behaviour in enough detail and in sufficient context to allow us to begin to understand the individuals and to get some hint as to why they are doing what they are doing. We can then start to interpret function and motive in their communication and thereby attempt to unravel the complexity of their behaviour in a way that few psychology experiments have ever allowed.

Nearly all the psychological research that has studied non-verbal communication in the past has been based on mere snapshots of behaviour.

Small sets of individuals have been invited into a psychological laboratory for short periods of time - a laboratory complete with one-way mirrors and hidden cameras. Oxford undergraduates, complete strangers to one another, were asked "to get to know each other in the laboratory". Sheffield students were simply asked to have a conversation "as naturally as possible" in front of the one-way mirror. "How exactly? What sort of conversation? What are we allowed to talk about? For what purpose? When do we know when to stop?" they asked as they were guided into a cold, soulless room and instructed to remove their coats before beginning their "natural" conversation. The resultant behaviours probably reflected some of these underlying concerns in quite deep and mysterious ways. But so much of our basic knowledge about human social interaction depends on these and similar studies.

No psychology experiment, with all the technology necessary to record the complexity of behaviour, has ever had anyone living in the laboratory before. But Big Brother , of course, does just that. The housemates know that they are being watched, but so do nearly all participants in research in the psychological laboratory. In Big Brother , they are there for weeks on end and their self-consciousness may never quite disappear but it surely fades, more than in the case of the participants in other psychological research who are never there long enough to allow this to happen.

Big Brother constitutes a rich source of material of multilayered social interaction: we see fierce abrupt arguments and long sessions of bonding; we find flirtation and all the evasion of the morning after; we witness alliances forming and coming apart; and we can see the levels and layers in all this.

There is another advantage to this show for the psychologist in that through time the audience becomes interested in the characters on screen and in what will happen to them. People are rarely interested in participants in psychological research in the same way. This makes the job of the psychologist that much easier: abstract descriptions of behaviour, minimal eye gaze, high levels of self-adaptors in the initial period, open posture developing into postural echo become relevant to the action rather than appearing like some irrelevant academic language that misses the point of the whole thing.

Relationships in the Big Brother house are always fascinating to the viewer. They may not be the relationships of great literature, in fact they are often quite ordinary, mundane affairs, but that is their attraction.

They are relationships like our own, relationships that we can identify with. We watch them build, sometimes very slowly, with this almost 360-degree perspective we have on them. We try to make sense of the conflicting and difficult signals as best we can, including micro-expressions so fleeting that you could easily miss them but that could hold the key to what is going on.

Part of the fast, fleeting action of everyday life is the movements of the hands and arms made during speech whose form seems to be related to the content of the speech. These movements, called iconic gestures, are closely integrated with the speech itself but, until recently, we were unsure as to what their function was. The latest research suggests that they reflect critical aspects of thinking. For example, in one experiment carried out by McNeill, somebody was telling a cartoon story and said:

"And she chases him out again" [Hand appears to swing an object through the air.] McNeill pointed out that the speech conveys pursuit and repetition but does not indicate the weapon (an umbrella). The iconic gesture conveys this.

McNeill emphasised that the sentence is well formed and not in need of repair and that the gesture is perfectly coordinated with the speech, and therefore the speech and gesture messages are generated by the brain at exactly the same time. Gesture and speech, McNeill concluded, cooperate to present "a single cognitive representation" and to get the complete message you need both speech and gesture. Speech conveys meaning through combinations of individual words with socially agreed meanings, and with a syntax for combining the meanings; gestures convey meaning through spontaneous, and largely unconscious, global images.

In a series of experiments with psychologist Heather Shovelton, I videoed participants narrating cartoon stories and then played just the speech segments or the gesture-speech combinations to another set of participants who were questioned about the original stories. We found that those who received the gesture-speech combinations obtained significantly more information than those who heard only the speech. The extra information included the speed and direction of the action, whether or not the action involved rotation or upward movement and the relative position, size and shape of the people and objects depicted. This core information was present only in the iconic gestures. The research demonstrated conclusively that to get the full message you need both speech and gesture and that iconic gestures are imagistic enactments of core representations - visible thoughts no less.

Big Brother added an extra dimension to this research. We can learn much more about how social representations are displayed in gesture by studying Big Brother . For example, I studied Les Dennis in Celebrity Big Brother in 2002. Les was in the diary room and, because he gained a score of zero in a quiz set by Big Brother , he was the only housemate who had to nominate for the forthcoming eviction. He was explaining why this nomination process would be so difficult for him; he was desperate to appear in a good light to the viewing public.

Les: "We are all six of us, very, very, close. [ Left hand is in front of left shoulder. Hand moves quickly to the left away from the body and then moves quickly back to its position in front of shoulder. This whole movement is repeated twice. The first half of the movement is then produced for a third time and the hand now remains away from the body .] Really close." [ Hands are wide apart. Hands move rapidly towards each other to an area in front of stomach but remain about six inches apart .] Although he says in his speech that the housemates are all "very, very close", the iconic gestures contradict what he is saying. You would expect the gesture to be towards the body, but the first gesture is actually away from the body. Then when he says "really close" the distance between his hands tells us how close the housemates are in his mind, which is not close at all. If the housemates had really been close, the hands should have drawn together.

In the past, some psychologists have concluded that these brief and fast movements of the hand reflect nervous energy or brief displays of emotion on the part of speakers. They do not. They are an integral part of thought itself and very much the other half of language, the neglected half. Of course, I worked on human communication for quite a number of years before Big Brother , but the show provided me with endless footage of human behaviour in all its glorious complexity. And, of course, the beauty of the Big Brother programme is that any psychological hypotheses and insights that emerge from the data reach a mass audience. The show attracts sufficient interest that many more young people may even be interested in studying psychology at university.

So to paraphrase Blakemore: what hope is there for the cultural advance of mankind when new theories in psychology reach an audience of millions and interest people from all walks of life and all social classes in basic science?

Geoffrey Beattie is professor of psychology at the University of Manchester. His book Visible Thought: The New Psychology of Body Language is published by Routledge, £9.95.

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